February 10th 2017
Given I’m still not even able to say thank you consistently, I’m hardly qualified to speculate what it’s like to live under this military dictatorship. Guidebooks warn not to engage politically, but they are clearly overreacting; in any given conversation, our combined vocabulary never exceeds 5 words making ‘Where you from?’ the most probing interchange possible. Tempting, though, to blithely interpret – that loudspeaker mounted on a pickup is surely spouting military propaganda – or is it just reading off this week’s lottery winners, as the adverts plastered on it suggest? Do those folks squatting under that huge screen in the street look so grim because they’re being politically realigned – or did the recycling fines go up again?
I consult my guys at the desk and they agree that an outing to the Moustache Brothers (the satirical vaudeville troupe strongly critical of the junta) may be just the job. My motorbike taxi is less keen; when we get there and he can’t find it he circles the block in a panic rather than ask directions, convincing me this is a truly subversive event. It certainly has potential: Only one Moustache brother is left, not because he’s so geriatric (which he is) but because brother #1 has succumbed to lead poisoning from the prison water he had to drink for 7 years, while brother #3 never even made it back. So, the remaining brother, #2, was left holding down the ‘irritate the junta’ fort until they came up with the, I must say, brilliant idea of not putting him into prison and turning him into a folk hero, but rather permitting him to perform only in English, thereby ensuring the average Burmese will never be able to understand what he’s saying.
It’s tough on the motley crew of Danes, Italians, English and Aussies in the audience too, but he helps us out by brandishing laminated placards with inflammatory comments as he tells political jokes. The best one: “My teeth were bad, so I went to dentist in Thailand. He say to me, Mr. Paw Paw Le you are from Burma. No dentists in Burma? And I say to him. Yes, there are, but we are not allowed to open our mouths”. He insists we take pictures and tells us via another placard to post them on Facebook. The rest of the troupe – his equally senior wife, sister, sister-in-law and cousin provide interludes of surprisingly energetic classical Burmese dance. They all look like they’re dying to go to bed and I feel for them. Still no answers. Has he become a clown who needs to retire his red nose, or is he still a serious provocateur, as the (ancient) photos plastered on the wall suggest he once was? His video of Aung San Suu Kyi laughing at his jokes is from 1996, so we are none the wiser.
If I bring this up with my desk guys, will I be flaunting basic Burma etiquette? Turns out they’re all ears. but when I tell night time guy the dentist joke he looks terrified, and I’m convinced I’ve gone a bridge too far. Then morning guy tells me it’s a terrible joke and night guy was only scared because we exceeded the 5-word limit. He says the motorbike taxi never asks for directions and that if I knew even one word of Burmese I could have told him off. He reassures me that Mandalay is crawling with young dissidents with better shtick than the antedeluvian Moustache, and asks me to write down the word ‘comedian’ in case it comes in useful sometime.
But he does tell me its Burma not Myanmar to those who disapprove of the junta.